Friday, November 6, 2009

Pope's Iliad

A detailed illustration of the shield of Achilles, decorated with many figures.Dartmouth Special Collections Library recently acquired a first folio edition of Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad. Published serially in six volumes between 1715 and 1720, The Iliad is among Pope's best-known works outside of his own poetry. In its day, these volumes added considerable polish to his reputation as the greatest poet of his age. Today this work offers considerable insight into early eighteenth-century English print culture.

Dartmouth's copy is among 750 printed for an elite subscription list. This edition is significant for its place in the Pope corpus and in his biography. Notable for the beauty and care taken in its printing and illustrations, the commercial success of this publishing venture that made Pope a wealthy man. Proceeds of the folio edition allowed Pope to retire early and take up residence at his storied villa in Twickenham.

Pope was not the first to translate The Iliad into English. Several others, notably George Chapman in the sixteenth century, produced earlier works. Pope's version was well regarded in its day for historical-literary methods he employed. He consulted and cited the work of previous translators and commentators in his "Observations" section that followed each book of the poem. These considerations did not stifle the poetic inspiration that led him to diverge dramatically from the original text. Among his innovations, Pope converted the epic poem into then-fashionable iambic pentameter. The result was a text distinctly his own -- decried by some as idiosyncratic or ill-conceived, celebrated by others, most notably Samuel Johnson, as an unparalleled 'performance.'

Pope's Iliad includes the poem, commentaries, several indices and illustrations including a depiction of the famous shield of Achilles, the shield used in his epic battle against Hector. The Homeric description of this shield wrought by Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalwork, is an example of the ancients' penchant for ekphrasis -- the rendering or referencing of one artwork in another. The etching in the Pope edition at Book 18 participates in this tradition, and is a stunning work in its own right.

One volume appeared each year over the six-year subscription cycle beginning in 1715. Printed by William Bowyer for Bernard Lintot, the first Pope edition sold out in advance of the first printing. In fact, the subscriber list appears in the text itself, a strategy that benefited patron and publisher alike. Pope's contract stipulated that he would receive a fee for each of the folio copies. Copies of the original contract still exist and form the basis for much of what is known about innovations in literary commerce in the eighteenth century. Lintot produced several subsequent editions in smaller versions at price points that enabled those who could not subscribe to the initial printing to purchase their own.

Posted for Mark Melchior.

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